Knowledge without Knowing
The Great Depression of the 1930's plagued the world with unemployment, inflation, and hardship. In America, the 1940's bustled with excitement and thriving new economics as women emerged from the home scene to help support and build weapons for the troops in Europe during World War II. The 1950's bubbled with the Red Scare, the terror felt by democratic nations towards communism and the mistaken belief that the USSR (known today as Russia) planned to bomb their arch enemy, the United States. Amazingly, people lived throughout these tumultuous times with the same problems and worries that people today now face. "I Stand Here Ironing" focuses on a mother who raised her daughter during those eras. Through the use of point of view, language, and imagery, Tillie Olsen delivers a message about a mother's relationship with her daughter through hard times and shows that no matter how much one may know about another, one may still know little about that person.
The story opens with a woman ironing and pondering a question asked by an unknown person, most likely a guidance counselor, who wants to help and understand her daughter, Emily. The mother's thoughts reflect the pattern of the iron as it moves back and forth. She reminisces about Emily's life and the effect that the circumstances throughout the Depression and World War II produced on her. Near the end of the story, Emily returns home, and the mother wonders why she received a phone call at all. After Emily heads off to bed, the mother sums up all of her memories and decides that Emily will survive.
With the mother as the main character, Olsen enforces the internal conflict and creates an understanding toward the character. Olsen presents "I Stand Here Ironing" in first person, through the eyes of a mother. The woman's thoughts "move back and forth with the iron." The sentences often follow a distinct pattern, such as, "Momma, you look sick. Momma, the teachers aren't there today, they're sick. Momma, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it's a holiday today, no school, they told me" (Olsen 732). This illustrates how the mother thinks while ironing. She does not set aside the iron to give her time to think, she continues to iron and her thoughts eventually pick up the pattern. As she irons, she considers and tries to answer the question an unknown caller asked. The first sentence of the story introduces this: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." Sometimes activities describe setting, and the mother spends a lot of time ironing because of her many children, and when Emily returns, she asks, "Aren't you ever going to finish the ironing, mother?" Through a series of detailed memories, the mother dissects and explains Emily's life, but still finds no solid explanation or reason for Emily's personality and character. As a mother, she feels responsible for everything that happened to Emily; avoiding the events, however, neared impossible due to the mother's circumstances. Also, she possesses an undying love, understanding, and confidence in Emily, so that, in the end of the story, she tells the speaker, "She will find her way" (738) and "Let her be" (738). The story, despite all of its information about Emily's life, says little about Emily's personality. The mother obviously knows her daughter, so, when remembering her daughter's life, she feels no need to analyze her personality. She mainly describes the events that brought her to grow into the young woman the caller knows. In the end of the story, Emily returns home, and the story shows her outside of the mother's memories for the first time. Unfortunately, what little Emily does and says amounts to only a small portion of her personality. A sympathetic character, the mother blames herself for the uncontrollable circumstances and problems she encountered when raising Emily. In this quote, "Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped," she expresses her regret. If Olsen gives Emily the point of view, the story's entire meaning, tone, and content. By using this point of view, Olsen provides the conflict of the story (the mother's attempt at answering the question) and provides a large amount of detail about Emily's life without providing details about Emily at all. Even her mother does not know everything about her, which she states in the beginning of the story. She says, "Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me." All the reader learns about Emily draws only from what the mother remembers while trying to answer a question.
Since the story revolves around a mother's memories and thoughts, the structure and language bounce around. The language enhances the setting, adds to the emotion felt by the character, and enforces the internal conflict. When people think, thoughts and emotions often turn suddenly from one subject or feeling to another. Often, people find difficulty in putting words to these feelings or thoughts, and when thinking about their memories, people sift through several different ways of saying or describing them. In "I Stand Here Ironing," the mother asks, "What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent?" (747). She does not quite understand what she concludes about Emily. The language of the story mirrors the language pattern or structure characteristic of real thoughts. For instance, the mother begins her internal monologue by saying that "she was a beautiful baby." In the next paragraph, she says that, "I nursed her." Then, as if on second thought, she asks, "Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything," and she starts her thought pattern again by saying, "She was a beautiful baby" (732). The language also creates the tone of the story, and the tone changes throughout.
The imagery in "I Stand Here Ironing" provides the settings, details about Emily and her life, and the tone of the story. It also provides the contrast between different stages of Emily's life. For example, the mother describes Emily's infanthood by saying, "She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls, patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur" (733-4). This shows that, as a baby, Emily possessed a good, happy nature. When Emily returned from her father's family, the mother says that "… I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks" (734). In that, she describes the change that Emily underwent when living away from her. In her description of Emily's nursery school, the mother insinuates that the nurseries create small, internal wounds. She says, "Old enough for the nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now – the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the nurseries that are only parking places for children" (734). Such a description produces a mental image of the possible character of the nursery. The mother reinforces this mental image by saying, "And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little boy hunched in the corner, her rasp, 'Why aren't you outside, because Alvin hits you? That's no reason, go out, scaredy.' I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore 'Don't go, Mommy' like the other children, mornings" (734). She describes the nursery setting as a miserable place to drop off children, and this description adds to the many other events and places that effect Emily's personality or happiness. Another change in Emily surfaces after she stays at the convalescent home, and yet another after she performs her comedy. By use of excellent imagery like this, Olsen provides a great deal of information and insight about Emily's life and the mother as she reminisces.
The point of view, language, and imagery in "I Stand Here Ironing" provide the necessary details and mood to create a successful and meaningful story. Despite the fact that the mother remembers everything about Emily's life with her, she only partially understands Emily's personality. As she says, "There is all of that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me." She only knows what she witnessed or what Emily informed her. The reader knows even less because the narrator only relays information she considers important to answering the question. One learns everything about Emily while learning nothing at all.